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Guilty of Romance
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by Jay Seaver

"Guilty of stuff a bit stronger than just romance."
4 stars

INTERNATIONAL CUT SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: I'm not quite sure what the rationale is for cutting a half hour out of "Guilty of Romance" for non-Japanese audiences; Sion Sono's fans have proven quite willing to sit through a long movie over the past few years ("Love Exposure" was four hours long with no good place to put an intermission) and his movies are singular enough that they're not going to break through to the mainstream. The audience that comes for an erotic thriller or a gruesome murder mystery will get something impressive but also something stranger.

Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is the dutiful wife to best-selling author Yukio Kikuchi (Kanji Tsuda), who barely seems to regard her beyond noting that his slippers are turned around when he returns home. Bored, she takes a job at a supermarket, where Eri Doi (Chika Uchida) spots her and says she's model material. That escalates from lingerie shoots quickly, and a dalliance with Karou (Ryuju Kobayashi), a man she meets in the love-hotel distriict, leads her to Mitsuko Ozawa (Makoto Togashi), a university lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute. The question then becomes whose murder Detective Kazuko Yoshida (Miki Mizuno) is investigating, as the body parts the police found are of a woman in her late twenties or thirties, but don't include hands or a head.

Actually, it's not just those parts missing; a nasty autopsy scene confirms that this case has a heck of a sexual component even before we've met the initially-innocent Izumi. As much as those early scenes will certainly make an impression on the audience, the cop-show stuff isn't really that important in terms of having Yoshida solve a mystery or saying anything about crime and how likely it is that one can get away with it. It's a way for Sono to prepare the audience for when things get grotesque later on - he gets a sizable portion of the shock value out of the way early, so that the end of the film doesn't feel like an empty twist but the logical result of the themes he's playing with.

The main one theme would be female sexuality and just what sort of pressure there can be to keep it under wraps, especially in Japan. Consider Izumi's and Mitusko's costuming - in her "respectable" guise, Izumi will often be the only one on-screen wearing traditional Japanese clothing amid a sea of western outfits to represent a heightened conservatism, compared to the cleavage about to pop out when she's doing something seedier; Mitsuko has a similarly stark contrast between her professor and prostitute appearances. It's arguable that neither extreme is the true Izumi or Mitsuko, and that the lives of sex workers are a similarly artificial way to balance their buttoned-down lives, with the closest thing to equilibrium coming when Izumi looks at her naked body in a mirror and decides she likes what she sees.

(I half-wonder whether the longer version gives the audience a look at Yosida in her off-hours. Not that it has to - sometimes a prominent character just happens to be female - but it would be an interesting detective/victim parallel.)

The actresses involved are all top-notch. Kagurazaka proves to be an impressive lead, occasionally going from demure to brash within the same scene and bringing a combination of inexperience and enthusiasm to scenes that might default to cynical. It would be easy to peg Mitsuko as being Izumi ten years later, but Togashi plays her with both a sharper intelligence and a somewhat predatory nature; the sort of teacher not afraid to give a sharp rebuke. Some of her best scenes come jousting with Hisako Okata, who plays Mitsuko's mother by saying cruel things in a grandmotherly voice. The men seem simple by comparison, because they can be: Motoki Fukami is amiably unworried about his reputation as the porn star working with Izumi and Ryuju Kobayashi makes a fine jerk as someone higher up in the business. Kanji Tsuda spends most of his time genteelly condescending as her husband; one immediately sees how she deserves better but might see him as impressive.

None of these are exactly subtle performances; that's not what a Sion Sono movie needs. They're big enough so that the audience can see the forces at work clearly. The storytelling is impressively simple as well; Sono is good at presenting ordinary things in a way that makes the audience question them, and pushing the story ahead smoothly enough that repeated elements have a different feel each time. Technically, the film does play somewhat raw; for all that Sono has become an artist with an international audience and reputation, he's still apparently working with low budgets and tight schedules.

And to a certain extent, I don't think I'd have it otherwise; who wants to see this sort of movie processed into something measured or conventional? Maybe the original Japanese cut will seem bloated by comparison if it hits home video here, but I'd be a bit surprised if so - this is a filmmaker who knows how to use a little extra time.

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originally posted: 04/03/13 10:33:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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  30-Sep-2011 (18)

  14-Mar-2014 (R)

Directed by
  Sion Sono

Written by
  Sion Sono

  Megumi Kagurazaka
  Makoto Togashi
  Miki Mizuno
  Kanji Tsuda
  Hisako Ohkata

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